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A.J. Brown’s road from Super Bowl loss to a record season

PHILADELPHIA — Eagles receiver A.J. Brown has a running bit with his trainer, Joey Guarascio, where he’ll show up at Guarascio’s facility in Boca Raton, Florida, unannounced. Guarascio’s phone rings and Brown will be on the other end, announcing he’s at the door.

In early March, Brown flew down to begin his offseason training.

The greeting was the same, but the vibes were different. The wounds from the Eagles’ 38-35 loss in Super Bowl LVII to the Kansas City Chiefs were fresh. Brown was distraught in the aftermath of that game — he declined to address the media that night, and the pain in his voice, which barely rose above a whisper, was evident when he spoke at his locker back in Philly a couple days later. Little time had passed before the demands of the next season came calling.

“You can tell that it stung, because he really didn’t want to talk about it,” said Guarascio, the head strength and conditioning coach at Florida Atlantic University who served in the same role at Ole Miss when Brown played there. “I picked the hint up like, OK, it’s still a sore subject. And I know that in his mind, he wanted to be MVP, he wanted the fairytale ending to it. I know that was one of his main drivers this whole offseason, to prove to everyone that he can be the best receiver in the NFL.”

Heading into Monday night’s Super Bowl rematch against the Chiefs (8:15 p.m. ET, ESPN/ABC), Brown’s mission is on track. He ranks second in receiving yards (1,005) behind only Tyreek Hill of the Miami Dolphins (1,076) and is coming off a historic stretch in which he became the first player in NFL history to post 125-plus receiving yards in six consecutive games, eclipsing a mark previously held by first-ballot Hall of Famer Calvin Johnson.

The quickest Eagle to reach 1,000 receiving yards, Brown has thrust himself into the Offensive Player of the Year conversation along with his close friend and quarterback, Jalen Hurts, helping the Eagles to an 8-1 start.

Part of Brown’s ascension can be linked to natural progression: It’s his second full season in coach Nick Sirianni’s offense and working alongside Hurts. Now 26 and a team captain, Brown has matured in the way he attacks his craft. Other developments defy the traditional career arc, like how he’s managed to gain speed in Year 5 despite enduring multiple lower-body injuries since coming into the league in 2019.

The goals have always been lofty — the long-standing motivational refrain between Brown and Guarascio is “gold jacket or bust” — but the edge has sharpened and the pursuit has intensified since Brown walked off the State Farm Stadium field in February with the Chiefs’ yellow and red confetti raining down on him.

“We didn’t finish the way we wanted to last year. Just having that buried in your heart: it wasn’t enough,” said Brown, on how last season’s ending inspired his performance in 2023.

“It was like that triggered something in him,” added Eagles receiver coach Aaron Moorehead, “like, ‘We don’t want to come up one drive short. We’ve got to be great. We’ve got to be perfect.'”

BROWN LIKES TO visualize his ambitions.

During his early days at Ole Miss, his locker stall was filled with pictures of top college receivers in the game he aspired to be like — players like Marquise Brown and Tyrie Cleveland — surrounding an image of the Biletnikoff Trophy, given to the top receiver in the NCAA.

There was no doubt he had the goods. After modest production as an outside receiver his freshman year, the 6-foot-1, 226-pound Brown moved into the slot as a sophomore following an injury to teammate Van Jefferson. In the 2017 opener against South Alabama, he erupted for eight catches for 233 yards and two touchdowns. He went on to lead the SEC in receiving yards each of the next two seasons.

“I always used to tell scouts and anybody that asked about him that he reminded me of what you used to see on film from the Jim Brown, old school running backs,” Jacob Peeler, Brown’s receivers coach at Ole Miss, said. “When he got the ball in his hands, he was just throwing dudes off of him.”

A 66-3 blowout loss to the Hurts-led Alabama Crimson Tide three weeks later led to a shift in Brown’s mindset. He was blanketed by future first-round safety Minkah Fitzpatrick and bracketed much of the day, finishing with one catch for six yards.

Frustrated by the outcome, Brown was determined to improve and eager to become one of the top players in college football. Guarascio challenged him to aim higher.

“When he got back [from Tuscaloosa], he was comparing himself to college receivers,” Guarascio said. “And I stopped him. I said, ‘Why are you comparing yourself to people that you play with? You need to compare yourself to people that you want to be better than long-term, people that are elite, Randy Moss and Terrell Owens and Jerry Rice and all these guys.’ I said, ‘Compare yourself to guys that you want to be better than, because if you set your limits that low, that’s where you’ll end up.'”

The pictures in his locker of his contemporaries came down. He replaced them with images of NFL standouts like Julio Jones — now his teammate — and Amari Cooper. Sunday nights were often spent in the Ole Miss wide receiver room alongside DK Metcalf watching YouTube videos of Jones and other NFL star receivers of the time.

“I stopped focusing on the current guys,” Brown said, “and started trying to outwork the guys that were in the NFL.”

As Brown’s dreams ballooned, he began capturing them down on Post-It notes, which he placed all over a mirror in his room. They included winning the Heisman Trophy, being a first-round pick in the 2019 draft, and being named All-American and All-SEC. Some of those goals materialized (he was a two-time All-SEC honoree), some didn’t and others came close (he was a second-round pick of the Tennessee Titans). But the bar was raised. He still writes those notes.

“It’s on my mirrors. It’s in my bathroom. It’s in my car. It’s everywhere,” Brown said. “If I continue to tell myself I’m this and I’m that, I’m soon going to believe it.” He chose to keep the contents of those recent notes to himself, joking that his ambitions would “probably scare the world.”

One of those goals, though, can be found on Guarascio’s whiteboard at the FAU training facility.

“He wrote in the bottom corner: ‘I’m the best’ and he [dated] it 3/21/23,” Guarascio said. “It says his goal was Offensive Player of the Year. He worked like it every day.”

Two main areas of focus were increased speed and enhanced endurance so he could perform better late in games. A bulk of each week was dedicated to speed training: acceleration drills, sled pulls, chain pulls. Brown competed with speedy Washington Commanders receiver Jahan Dotson, who also trained at FAU, and credited that with helping him to get him faster.

“You could tell by the first workout I had with him, his desire to be great,” Dotson said of Brown. “We’d do sprints and stuff like that. I’d ask Coach Joey, ‘What did A.J. run this morning?’ and would make sure I tried to beat it. And I’m pretty sure he was doing the same thing.”

Last year, Brown’s top speed would reach a touch above 22 miles per hour, Guarascio said, and it increased to the mid-23s this offseason.

“One mile per hour is equal to three yards of separation,” Guarascio said. “So if you’re running 23, and I’m running 22, you’re technically three yards ahead of me. So for him to be able to gain separation with his top speed, and then for him to gain separation with his change of direction because his speed and his change direction in and out of his breaks has increased, it’s a multiplier.

“And then when he touches the ball, his physicality, his size, his strength and his power, that’s like Derrick Henry running the ball, you’re not taking him down with one person.”

Beyond getting faster and in better shape, Moorehead noticed a refinement in Brown’s route running as the Eagles’ offseason training program got underway. It has since become routine to see Brown dominate at practice.

When his day at the NovaCare practice facility is over, Brown often exchanges his shoulder pads for boxing gloves.

He first connected with professional boxer Stephen Fulton Jr., a former unified bantamweight world champion, when the Eagles asked Fulton to come in and give the players pointers for a hype video shoot prior to the 2022 season. Brown expressed interest in training with Fulton, and has been going to a local Philadelphia gym one to two times a week ever since.

“Just that one-on-one feeling in the ring. Nobody can save me,” Brown said. ” I have to fight my way out. And it correlates to the field because I’m one-on-one on the back side, I’ve got the best corner on the field. I’ve got to win. Nobody is saving me … It’s me and you. It’s ‘mano y mano.’ I’ve got to win.”

And Brown said he’s been reaping the benefits of training regimen as well.

“Timing, speed, athleticism, there’s a lot that I can continue to see because he’s getting better. It’s coming more natural,” Fulton said. “Boxing has one of the best workouts there is in any sport. So for him to be training a boxing workout, I feel like he won’t even get that tired on that field.”

One Eagles practice performance in recent weeks compelled Sirianni to seek out team CEO Jeffrey Lurie and thank him for the $100 million investment in Brown after the team acquired him from the Titans in a draft day trade in April 2022.

“Nobody catches the ball as pretty as A.J. Brown,” Sirianni said. “Nobody goes and snags the football like him. Nobody I have seen. It’s so much cooler in person to see that and when it’s someone on your team. He’s on a tear right now.”

Moorehead said he didn’t know which practice Sirianni was referencing — a testament to Brown maintaining this state of elevated play for months, creating a heightened sense of urgency along with the likes of Hurts and Brown’s counterpart, DeVonta Smith.

“It’s been a long time since I’ve seen practices like that. It goes back to my Colt days honestly,” said Moorehead, the former Indianapolis receiver, “when it was Peyton [Manning] and Marvin [Harrison] and Reggie [Wayne]. Those practices, it was like perfection every single day. And if it wasn’t, it was hell to pay for everybody.”

A HEATED SIDELINE conversation between Brown and Hurts was caught on camera during the Eagles’ Week 2 win over the Minnesota Vikings. It was at the start of the fourth quarter, on a night when Brown was limited to four catches for 29 yards.

An emotional Brown left the stadium that night without speaking to reporters. Addressing the moment several days later, he said there was not “beefing with Jalen,” that the conversation was about a sequence earlier in the game, not target share. He said he doesn’t mind having uncomfortable conversations with teammates, believing it’s his responsibility to hold players accountable.

Still, that exchange marked a symbolic turning point. Brown was averaging five catches for 54 yards those first two games. It has since mushroomed to eight catches and 128 yards per game.

“They have such a good open line of communication that it was kind of over and done with,” Moorehead said of Hurts and Brown. “And it focused everybody up and said here, what’s the task at hand? It’s the next game. It’s the next rep. Let’s move on. They’ve got such an ultimate trust in each other right now and it’s been pretty evident of how they both have played since then.”

On Oct. 29, against the Commanders, Brown surpassed 125-plus receiving yards for the sixth consecutive game, exploding for eight catches, 130 yards and a pair of scores, including a one-handed TD grab in the corner of the end zone that remains one of the top highlights of the NFL season.

Cornerback Darius Slay, who played with Calvin Johnson in Detroit, likened Brown to Johnson postgame.

“He’s catching everything. He ain’t dropping s— so I’d keep throwing to his ass, too.”

Slay was one of many teammates who couldn’t help but gush over Brown in the cramped visitors’ locker room at FedEx Field.

“I’m proud of him as a friend and as a quarterback,” Hurts said. “I’m proud that he’s truly invested into winning and putting the team first and doing whatever he needs to do in his role to win.”

Brown, though, struck a humble tone as he took to the podium, saying the accomplishment didn’t resonate with him “at all” because his work is not done.

Hours after the game, Guarascio got a text from Brown.

“Got bigger dreams and bigger goals,” Brown wrote.

“Just a byproduct of the process,” Guarascio responded. “We celebrate after MVPs, Super Bowl MVPs and gold jackets.”

ESPN Washington Commanders reporter John Keim contributed to this story.

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